This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. This month, two faculty members, Nate Chapman and Jen Smith Maguire, talk about their work on the consumption of craft beer and wine.
Scholars’ Conversations: Jen Smith Maguire and Nate Chapman
Jen: I was just looking back through my files and—time flies!—we are coming up to five years since we first connected through a mutual research interest in beer. Your call for chapter proposals for what became Untapped had a deadline of 1 January 2015. That was fortuitous timing (apart from the actual deadline), because I’d just wrapped up the data collection for a project on microbrewers, working with four colleagues at the University of Leicester (Jessica Bain, Andrea Davies, Maria Touri and Natasha Whiteman—my younger son dubbed us ‘The Beer Ladies’).
We were exploring the role of stories in the cultural production of a market for small-scale ‘craft’ beer, and focusing on microbreweries in the East Midlands, UK. We were interested in the stories told by the brewers and brewery sales managers (about their brewery, beer, market peers and consumers) and what that might tell us about the strategic and unintended roles of storytelling in the marketing of, and market making for, small-scale beer. The project linked into recurrent conceptual interests of mine, but the empirical focus on beer was a departure from my usual (personal and professional) interests in wine. What was your way in to studying beer?
Nate: I had been a craft beer drinker since my days as an undergrad. Fun fact, I completed a 100 beer club at a local bar in Charleston, SC when I was a freshman at College of Charleston! That experience sparked my passion for craft beer, and certainly set the stage for my research. My research on craft beer started when I was working on my dissertation at Virginia Tech. I had just finished my area exam in the Sociology of Culture and was trying to decide on a dissertation topic. I was very interested in Richard Peterson’s (1990) Production of Culture perspective.
In this framework, Peterson suggests that laws/regulations, industry structure, organizational structure, markets, technology, and occupational careers all work in concert to constrain and stimulate the production of cultural products. Given my interest in craft beer, I found that no one had really engaged with craft beer from a sociological perspective. I thought the Production of Culture perspective may be able to shed some much needed analytical light on the topic.
I was particularly interested in explaining how craft beer emerged and the rise of the industry and cultural phenomenon it is today. While I was finishing up my dissertation, I began working with Slade Lellock and Cameron Lippard (both of whom I still collaborate with) on Untapped. At the time, I could not have imagined the impact that volume would have on my research and career, and in the broader sense, the impact it would have on craft beer scholarship. That work created a social network of beer scholars that had previously not existed, and in some ways gave legitimacy to studying craft beer as a cultural product.
Has your work on beer informed your current work in any way?
Jen: The beer focus was a one-off, but the project really underlined to me how the aesthetic regime of fine wine continues to diffuse through consumer culture. It’s not that craft beer and wine are the same—they’re not—but there are so many parallels in terms of how craft beer is being legitimated and made available as an object of connoisseurship by a range of cultural producers and intermediaries. At the time of the project, that was wonderfully captured by Peter de Sève’s New Yorker cover ‘Hip Hops,’ which depicts the classic “Would you care to taste the wine?” dance that attends wine choice at fine dining restaurants.
In de Sève’s piece, however, the sommelier patiently presenting the bottle is a hipster archetype, with wool beanie, plaid flannel shirt and on-trend facial hair; the two patrons deliberating on quality—he, swirling a taste in his mouth; she, inspecting the label—are bedecked with artful lower back, neck and arm tattoos. The bottle and specialist glasses would suggest they’re sampling a Belgian wheat beer to go with their burger and fries. It’s a great snapshot of how beer—or rather, some beers—are shifting positions within Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘hierarchy of legitimacies,’ through appropriations and adaptations of various features of the wine field that wield legitimacy not least because of their seeming perdurance (I mean, really…the Court of Master Sommeliers claims a 700 year history!).
I’m especially interested in the terroir-ization (that’s pretty ugly!) of consumer goods—how notions of terroir are made legible through provenance stories, deployed for making and protecting markets (as in “My wine’s better than yours, and you can’t make wine like mine because you haven’t got the same soil and savoir faire”), and implicated in how those goods are made and brought to market. You can certainly say some of it is just marketing bumf, but terroir is also a potentially powerful device for disrupting established hierarchies of legitimacy, as it is for wines from emerging regions where terroir is being “invented” (in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense!) or its reputation rehabilitated.
Nate: As a craft beer enthusiast—and white male with a beard and an affinity for plaid—I am constantly confronted with the “white hipster guy with a beard in a plaid shirt” trope. In the U.S., where craft beer consumption is still on the rise, larger firms such as ABInBev have actually used that stereotype to market products like Bud Light and Budweiser. Most of these commercials juxtapose a mustachioed hipster with a snifter in one hand, with a group of “all American” Budweiser drinkers. These ads also feature implicit and explicit themes and symbols that suggest that drinking craft beer is somehow “less patriotic” than drinking domestic beer. One prominent ad attempts to emasculate a craft drinker who is drinking from a snifter at a bar next to several rowdy men who are clanking bottles of Budweiser and high-fiving each other. The messaging is clear, and quite problematic.
On the one hand, they are attempting to cast all craft beer drinkers in the same mold—that of the pretentious hipster. But on the other hand, they are also suggesting that drinking craft beer is less “American” or “manly” than drinking Budweiser. While their essentialist view of craft beer drinkers may seem a bit tongue in cheek, the data on craft beer consumption actually supports some of this. Craft beer in the U.S. is overwhelmingly consumed by white males aged 21-34, who have a college degree and make over $50,000 annually. One goal of my research is to highlight the lack of diversity in the consumption as well as production of craft beer, while also debunking the “hipster” myths surrounding craft beer. I find it endlessly fascinating that something as innocuous as beer can tell us so much about structural issues surrounding race and gender, as well as provide new frontiers for research into consumption practices and the formation of cultural tastes.
Jen: Agreed! There is a definite upside to using the innocuous and everyday as your point of entry for researching and teaching. But what about the downsides? When I first started my wine research, a friend warned me that I risked killing my love of wine by turning it into work. That hasn’t proven entirely true, but she had a point. What would you say are the occupational hazards of researching beer?
Nate: Before I started researching craft beer, I was very interested in subcultures, particularly music scenes and music subcultures. I remember one of my advisors warning me that researching a group I was highly involved with—in this case Deadheads and Phish fans—may change my view of the scene. The same was true for my beer research. There are certainly methodological hurdles one must navigate when studying something they are passionate about, but for me those challenges helped me to see outside my own experience and to be more critical in my consumption, my participation in the culture, and in my research. I think the most difficult part of studying craft beer is defending the scholarship as a legitimate field of research.
I am constantly asked by colleagues, “Oh you study craft beer, I bet you must drink a lot of beer,” or referring to drinking craft beer as “research” with a wink and a nod. While not an occupational hazard per se, I do find it somewhat frustrating trying to explain to colleagues, outside of culture and consumption studies, that craft beer is an excellent lens with which we can view a host of sociological issues. In terms of my love of craft beer, my research has allowed me to better understand the larger structural mechanisms of production, marketing, and taste formations within the industry and the attendant craft beer culture. I certainly think that craft beer scholarship is becoming more accepted by sociologists outside of culture and consumption, and scholars are beginning to see the value in studying cultural products more critically.
Jen: Like you, I’ve run up against the wink-and-a-nod brigade. That started early: my PhD was on the cultural production of the field of physical fitness. Anything sport-related seems to be treated as a second-rate area of cultural research (and culture), which is ridiculous given how fundamental it is to people’s identities, rituals, values (not to mention expenditures). With wine, I run up against a deep suspicion that if your research involves pleasure it must surely be superficial.
Once, near the end of a job interview one of the panelists snidely quipped that he could “just imagine” my next research topic: the micro-economics of Polynesian 5-star resorts. (I was fuming, but part of me also thought, “That has possibilities!”) That said, those have been blips in what’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience of working within supportive research communities (including our Consumers and Consumption section) and research collaborations. I really value collaboration; it shares the load but there’s also so much more fun to be had with bouncing ideas around, joint analysis and co-writing, and that sense of fun really drives motivation and creativity. Plus, I find it easier to write “we” than “I.”
Nate: I prefer to collaborate on projects as well. I find that bringing in different perspectives—in terms of a researcher’s social location, as well as different theoretical perspectives—strengthens a project in that it forces me to view things outside of my own familiar lenses. My collaborations have led to long-lasting research partnerships and access to social networks that have expanded my research in craft beer, while also opening up new fields of study.
One issue I have with my research is finding the time to answer all of the questions I could not address in an article or chapter. Even after I turned in my second book manuscript, I found myself thinking, “OK, so what’s next?” So, what is next for you? What do you have on the horizon, or what project would you most like to get started on?
Jen: My project list tends to make me feel like a plate spinner—too many good ideas/projects/collaborators; not enough time! I’m collaborating with Rich Ocejo and Michaela DeSoucey on an analysis of how forms of trust get produced and circulated for artisanal goods, such as natural wine. We presented a draft of the argument last summer at ASA and we’re now trying to contain our exuberance within the confines of a journal submission. And, I’ve just started working with an outstanding group of wine scholars (Steve Charters, Marion Demossier, Tim Unwin, Denton Marks, Jackie Dutton, Graham Harding) to assemble a massive Handbook of Wine and Culture for Routledge. That’s given me a great excuse to connect with a range of people whose work I’ve been admiring from a distance. I’ve also been building some research in South Africa’s Cape Winelands on provenance and sustainability; that’s a slow burn but I’m really excited about it.
What about you—what’s next?
Nate: Given the number of new questions/ideas that emerged from my book project, I don’t see myself moving away from craft beer research anytime soon! There is still so much to explore and analyze within craft beer scholarship, so that should keep me busy for the next few years. My other projects are a bit all over the place. I recently published a piece in Sociological Inquiry that looked at the Phish fan subculture and jamband scene through the lens of Anderson’s (2015) “white space” framework. I am currently collecting data on the demographics of the scene fans’ attitudes about race. While I don’t have any projects on this subject in mind per se, I have been reading a lot (probably too much!) about cult films. I am hoping to develop a course on the Sociology of Cult Films. I am particularly interested in the ways in which race, class, and gender are depicted in cult films. I hope to carve out an article from some of that research as well.
What a great conversation! While I have most certainly enjoyed learning more about your research and your career as a scholar, I have also been fascinated by this whole process. It is so cool to sit down and plan out exactly you want to say, or what questions you want to ask, rather than thinking on your feet in a normal face to face conversation. I look forward to continuing this conversation and starting new ones at ASA this year!
About the scholars:
Jennifer Smith Maguire is a professor in Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University (UK), where she leads the Culture, Health, Environment, Food and Society (CHEFS) research cluster. Her research focuses on the intersection of processes of cultural production and consumption in the construction of markets, tastes and value, primarily in relation to wine (although she’s been known to also publish about the super-rich, sustainability, Starbucks, fitness, and even Star Trek). She is past-chair of the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption section.
Nathaniel G. Chapman is an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas Tech University. He also serves as the Director of the Center for Undergraduate Research. His research focuses on issues of race, class, and gender in the craft beer industry and its attendant culture. His other work examines the ways in which breweries and brewers construct identities and how the notion of authenticity affects craft beer consumption. He is also co-editing a volume on spaces and places of craft beer consumption.